Why Gove Is Incorrect On The “Bottom 25%”

Last week Michael Gove suggested that the ‘bottom 25%‘ of students should take a CSE, or at least a qualification that is lower than a GCSE in order to cater for their needs.

This 25% figure seemed both arbitrary and a bit rum, so I asked Chris Cook to get me some numbers and having sent those through I analysed and found that last year 83.5% of students achieved at least one C at GCSE.  This suggests that – at a maximum  – only approx. 16.5% of students could reasonably (ethically?) be entered for a qualification that doesn’t allow access to the C grade mark.  However, given there’s only 1 mark between a C and a D at the grade boundary most people would rightly be uncomfortable with the idea that everyone in this 16.5% is definitely out of reach of the C grade.  It is likely that on the right day some of them could have done better (and would have done in mock exams, etc).

To make the rule more stringent then we would probably only want to enter a student for a CSE if they were likely to get an E or below.  I looked again at last year’s figures and found only 7.7% of students achieve only E grades or below in their GCSEs*.  A whopping 92.3% of students achieve at least one D grade.  This number is even more startling if one only looks at students NOT on the SEN register; in this case just 2.2% of students receive only E grades or below.  Note, these calculations are based on full GCSEs – not BTECs, or equivalents – they are all full GCSEs.  Hence, if Gove wants to bring in a qualification for people who really are unlikely to pass GCSEs then he may be right to do so (see my blog below and here) but he needs to recognise that it will only really be useful for 7.7% of students (most of whom have a special education need) and not a fictional ‘bottom 25’.

[*Update 18:43 – The figures above don’t include students who didn’t sit GCSEs at all. If you count that in then this figure rises to 10.5%. It’s still a long way from 25 and probably also includes a bunch of private school students sitting the IB]

Categories: GCSE Reforms, UK Education Policy

7 replies

  1. If the Gove idea is to work at all I presume that there will be something like a third of students who do combinations of CSEs and GCSEs where there will be a reasonable number of CSEs in their subject mix.

    I can’t see any merit in putting 25% of pupils into a CSE ‘track’ where only CSEs are studied – what a horrible and stupid idea.

    On the other hand, the idea of creating a qualification for those that are not going to do well in specific GCSEs has quite a lot of merit. Mainly because curricula and pedagogy can be developed that are specifically focussed on teaching valuable skills to young people (such as practical mathematical skills). At the moment, a lot of children just fail their GCSE rather than try to pass something of value that is tailored to their needs.

    Of course we have NVQs but they are not designed for children (they are pass/fail rather than graded) and are generally considered to be appalling qualifications.

    So there is a case for creating a second qualification that is more practical/at a lower level but still of good quality. Just as there is a case for creating a better quality ‘academic’ qualification for 16 year-olds. Of course if this reform is done badly we’d be better off just sticking with GCSEs.

  2. I suspect that Gove wants to make it harder to get a C in the new O-Level.
    If he estimates that 25% would not even get a grade, there will be lots of failures.
    For some reason this is seen as a good thing by Mr Gove and the Tories.

  3. He wants to make it harder to get each grade… So now you know how much harder.

  4. Firstly the main people that think competence based assessment as in NVQs is appalling don’t understand the full range of purposes for assessment. The purpose of competence based assessment is to check whether someone is competent to do something not to sort academic sheep from goats. Most academic assessment, and that includes GCSE at least has its foundation in a process of selection with Oxbridge at the top of the pyramid and low grade employment/unemployment at the bottom. If vocational qualifications were that badly thought of there would not be around 50,000 units across different occupational sectors in use in thousands of qualifications largely target on employment. This is a much bigger industry than GCSE. So perhaps the education system has something to learn from these supposedly inferior qualifications. Recognise competence in children without ranking them in a pecking order that means at least a significant minority feel like failures. Now there’s an idea. Start valuing practical skills and capabilities so we encourage doers as well as academics, civil servants and office workers.

    As for accessibility to grade Cs, just because a child can manage to scrape a C in say art, it does not mean they will necessarily be able to do it in maths, especially if the exams become harder as is proposed. That is ignoring the fundamental issue of motivation. Just making the bar higher is not going to make weak attainers jump higher in subjects they think are pretty well irrelevant to them. Could well do the opposite. So I think CSEs are the wrong answer to the wrong question. We need competence based assessment options in practical areas such as IT usage, managing personal finance, setting up and running a small business. Nothing to stop these being done concurrently with GCSE whether it is the weak student achieving a single C or someone getting a string of A*s. Higher attainers can prove their competence at a younger age, many children would benefit by doing fewer GCSEs with more quality and having more time not pressured by teaching to an exam.

    • Ian, while I agree with you in principle I am also concerned that the same thing has been said for the past 30 years: “Why don’t we try valuing vocational education”…..but the problem is, we don’t. The Diploma was a cracking effort from the last government on this front, and with improved assessment procedures BTECs were also brilliant (I taught both), but the problem is that many employers, most politicians and (sadly) most parents simply won’t value them as a school-based qualification. It is absolutely true that *adults* get these qualifications in droves but within the 11-18 framework they tend to be devalued no matter what has been done to promote them.

      The best writing on this comes from Alison Wolf in her book “Does Education Matter?” but a lot of it is paraphrased in her review of vocational education (here: http://www.education.gov.uk/a0074953/review-of-vocational-education-the-wolf-report). While I am absolutely reluctant to say that I think GCSEs are the only option, or that they are the best option, the available evidence so far is that they are the most ‘in demand’ qualification and there should be ways of ensuring everyone can achieve well in them, at least in English and Maths and this wouldn’t involve making the qualifications easier but in ensuring proper support for students struggling with them.

      What may be true – in fact, I think *is* true – is that this should be supplemented by a broader range of qualifications than just academic GCSEs. This is why I was a fan of the Diploma – it allowed for a range of qualifications to sit together under one framework with a requirement for English, Maths & ICT throughout.

      • Over the last 30 years there has been no strategy to get a balanced provision. The Diploma was never given a chance and in any case it was designed to fail. Designed by academic bureaucrats to be far too complex, far too expensive and more academic than practical. I did a number of consultancies on it and we are Ofqual accredited as a Component Awarding Body. The ModBac can do what the Diploma was designed to do with virtually not central costs and with more flexibility. Alison Wolf. Why did Gove hire her? He knew she was going to say what he wanted her to say. Political mouth-piece masquerading as a neutral academic 😉 Some massive holes in her report but generally no-one clued up on vocational assessment to argue the case. Why? Because 99% of people in the academic school system have no real experience of competence based assessments despite the NC ATs lending themselves to it, they are so steeped in watered down academia they think that is what life is about.

        Now the myth of employers and what they want. I’m an employer but no-one is ever likely to be employed by us based on quals gained at 16 or before. Even people we employ for manual work. It’s not based on their GCSEs never even asked them what GCSEs they have, and our professionals are graduates and post graduates, not even based on A levels. This link between “valued” qualifications and employers is a myth. GCSE and Level 2 quals done at school are largely used to progress to FE and HE and only to HE after A levels. Once you get a degree your A levels are forgotten never mind GCSEs. FE do a lot of vocational quals themselves, its HE that looks down on them, but a minority go into HE and then come straight back out into schools and the DfE QED. Like why we teach a lot of French when we do more business with Germany. They all think it was good for me so it must be good for everyone else – its the Gove mentality and why his stupid arguments get so much traction. Even many teachers believe it! So once again we have a lot of political myths determining what is taught and how, not evidence based stuff on what motivates children to learn – all children, not just those destined for academic university. And the how is largely teaching to watered down academic tests that are useless to the great majority and they know it. They are not actually that stupid.

        GCSEs are largely irrelevant except for politics. English and maths there is certainly a case for testing simply to guarantee entitlement but that could be any competence based testing. Even with 5 GCSEs and say 3 voc/practical similarly sized quals my system would reward and motivate better than current GCSE let alone O level CSE – I taught O levels and CSEs so I have first hand experience. In fact if there was more focus on En, Ma and Sc with more freedom elsewhere we’d probably do better in the Pisa tests.


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